I’ve been falling in love with it all week. Criterion.com, that is. I’ve been buying their films for a few years now, but I’ve only just begun in the last few days to explore the fantastic resources found on the website of the Criterion Collection, (“a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films on home video”). Aside from illuminating essays on each of the 562 films and counting that Criterion has released, the website also features dozens of top 10 lists written by diverse people in the entertainment industry (from Wes Anderson to Patton Oswalt to Guerillmo Del Toro). Each contributor lists her top 10 criterion films and why. It’s a little self serving of them, but when you’re remastering, perfecting, and releasing the most important films ever made, I think you deserve act like you’re, well, doing just that. I’m far from having watched all 562 films, but I thought I’d list my top 10 Criterion Collection films, as an exercise in learning more about some of the films that I’m falling in love with.
1) Seven Samurai – It’s almost a cliché to list this film in your top 10, as it’s never far from the top in any honest list. But it’s that good, in part because it’s so many things—a black comedy of manners, an epic adventure, a tragic love story, a complex fable of traditional morality and agnostic doubt, and swordfights, swordfights, swordfights. One could easily fill a top ten list with Kurosawa films, but to pick only Seven Samurai is to choose a work that encapsulates all of what he does best. If I was on a desert island, and could only bring one movie (and a DVD player), this would, in all likelihood, be it.
One of the great things about the Criterion Collection is the packaging, and Seven Samurai has the best of any film I’ve seen. The black and white outer case is luminous, and possesses the almost transparent feeling of the finest Japanese Sumi-e painting, though it’s just ink on cardboard. There’s a short book (book!) inside the case with essays about the film in addition to a 3 disc set. Criterion really knows how to package.
2) Stagecoach – What Seven Samurai did for the period-set epic, Stagecoach did for the Western action film. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kurosawa himself was thinking of John Ford as he directed his Samurai films. In Stagecoach, a formula is both created and perfected: A handful of travelers of various ages, social stations, and philosophies are stranded in uncomfortably close physical proximity on an increasingly dangerous journey. One man with a dark past and an uncertain future must keep them all alive, even as he falls in love with one of them. This could, of course, describe any number of films, from Daylight to Speed to Die Hard. But, of course, when the man of the hour is a young John Wayne, the film ascends from predictable cliché to indelible archetype. This is also the first film I know of to employ the “send in the cavalry” trope, so ubiquitous in action movies, and it’s the literal cavalry in this one.
3) Hard Boiled – I’m realizing that my top three criterion films are all basically action films; I’m not sure what that says about me. John Woo’s Hard Boiled, however, is the father (or foreign uncle?) of contemporary action films, wherein a young Woo pretty much perfects the slow motion gun-fight. The story, like Seven Samurai and Stagecoach, is so familiar it almost seems cliché—the cop (played by Chow-Yung-Fat and named, inexplicably, Tequila) who will stop at nothing to bring down the criminals terrorizing his city, the police chief who thinks he’s reckless, the other cop (a melancholy Tony Leung) who’s deep undercover, morally confused, and at the end of his rope, and a ruthless gang of Triad baddies who enjoy public bombings and shooting up hospitals. All of this crescendos in one of the most epic sequences I’ve seen, topping the climax of Die Hard (is that possible?) for best action climax ever. Let’s just say that one aspect of the scene is that Tequila has to shoot his way out of a hospital under siege while the hospital is on fire/exploding, while protecting an infant (don’t worry, Tequila puts cotton in his ears so he won’t hear the shotgun blasts). Subtlety? A long way away. Action Perfection? Bingo. Sadly, this film is not currently available from Criterion, though I hope that will change eventually. I bought the “Dragon Dynasty” version, which will have to do for now.
4) Chasing Amy – At last, a non-action film. Chasing Amy is arguably director Kevin Smith’s best film, and is most representative of what he does best: frank, scathing conversations about romantic relationships and sexuality. His characters are, not a one, likable. But you grow to love them. Or maybe it’s the other way around. This iteration of the “Kevin Smith movie” focuses on two recurring characters, Banky—a fast talking, crude-but-pitiable Jason Lee—and Holden—a nice if romantically naïve Ben Affleck—both of whom write comics. The story picks up when Holden meets a fellow comic book writer, Alyssa, played with spit and verve by Joey Laurel Adams, who seems like the perfect girl (she likes comics, she can joke around with the guys, etc). But it turns out she’s a lesbian. For the rest of the movie, we watch Holden struggle with his uneasiness (and often repulsion) at her past, even as he tries to establish a heterosexual relationship with her. Because Smith is Smith, he doesn’t pull punches (the film is a hard R, and that’s all for language), and lets his characters struggle and fail with humbling and heartbreaking results. While the rest of the actors are capable (even Ben Affleck!), it’s Joey Laurel Adams who really shines as a homosexual woman who has to “come out” to her lesbian friends and attempts to rearrange her life around a man.
5) Henry V – I have a funny relationship with movie adaptations of Shakespeare. On one hand, I never want to watch them as much as I want to watch most other films. On the other hand, I usually want to watch them more frequently than anyone else I know. Thus it’s probably beneficial to us both that I put this on my list. While Kenneth Brannagh has ruled the Shakespearean screen for the last 30 years, he learned most of what he knows about making Shakespeare films from Laurence Olivier. Criterion has released three of Olivier’s Shakespeare films, of which this is the first. Of course, this is Shakespeare’s famous and beloved history about Henry V’s contest with France, but Olivier also makes it a meditation on the boundary between mediums of theatre and film. The first few scenes are shot as if from the back of a theatre—the stage, the curtain, and the audience are all visible and even prominent. But by the end of the film, the camera has moved forward, and the wooden stage has given way to the hills and battlefields of France. Still the clothes retain the feeling of costumes, and even the large chambers of the French castle have a stage-like simplicity. Branagh may have made a Braveheart era Henry V, replete with a soaring soundtrack and blood-spattered camera, but Olivier’s, while cleaner and dated-feeling, is about the uneasy medium of Shakespearean film itself.
6) Rashomon – If anyone, Kurosawa is the one who deserves two spots on this list. Framed by a torrential rainstorm, Rashomon is the yang to Seven Samurai’s yin. The former is as messy, fragmented, and disturbing as the latter is ordered, formal, and illuminating. Rashomon is ostensibly a film about perspective; instead of, like Olivier, telling one story once while changing angles and frames as the story progresses, here Kurosawa tells one story five times with only the story-teller changing. The story is a short one—a samurai and his wife are attacked by a robber in the forest; the robber kills the samurai and rapes his wife. On my initial watching, after the first story is told, I knew that four more tellings would wear my heart and mind thin and brittle. They did. As the story is turned over and over, each character changes hue from hero to villain to victim to coward and back again. And it soon becomes clear that the film is more truly about the worth of existence than knowledge or perspective. Some of the tellings are a better argument for nihilism and pure despair than any I’ve ever found on film. And yet a deep, joyful humanism, more simple and clear than on any other film on this list, rises like a reflection in a puddle, and cleanses like spring rain.
7) Army of Shadows – France deserves its due on this list, and this film is a pinnacle of worthiness. It’s the most unique, and possibly the best, film about WWII I’ve seen, told from the perspective of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France. It’s also by Jean-Pierre Melville, maker of such beautiful and brutal gangster films as Le Samourai and Le Circle Rouge. Refreshingly, the hero of Army of Shadows is neither a James Bond nor a Schindler, but a pot-bellied civil engineer named Gerbier, who, along with a group of civilian rebels, go on truly thrilling adventures in their increasingly desperate resistance of Hitler’s soldiers. The film is as sad and morally frustrating as Saving Private Ryan, yet the fact that it is not about soldiers, but regular citizens, intensifies the significance of the violence to an almost unbearable pitch, and raises the few, small victories to the level of bright, fragile miracles.
8) Life Aquatic – Wes Anderson has made a name for himself directing films that fit together like large, colorful schematics. He started with a film about friends (Bottle Rocket), then rivals (Rushmore), then a family (Royal Tenenbaums), and finally in Life Aquatic, about shipmates, some of which are family, some friends, some rivals and even enemies. The ship and its crew are ostensibly on a revenge mission (Moby Dick lurks in the subtext, though this time its a shark), but it wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without some bittersweet family dysfunction. Also, there’s some thrilling swashbuckling that creeps up out of nowhere, and many passages of lyrical beauty. At the heart of the film is Bill Murray, playing what he plays best: a man older and more vice-ridden than he wants to be, but scruffy and lovable despite it, which works perfectly for the role of a postmodern Ahab, crippled less by hate and revenge than by boredom and fear of responsibility. Also delightful is a turn by Cate Blanchette as a pregnant reporter along for the ride, whose mannerisms and expressions are some of the most natural and interesting I’ve seen in a comic character.
9) Kind Heart and Coronets – This old gem is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a dark comedy to end all dark comedies about a young man, Louis, who is cheated out of his father’s inheritance by a judgmental extended family. With wit, slink, and even swagger, Louis gleefully kills off everyone standing between he and his title in increasingly absurd ways (exploding photography and hot air balloon disasters are involved). In a spirit of high farce, the indomitable Alec Guinness plays most of the members of Louis’ doomed family, including several women. Class warfare, social injustice, and family loyalty loom large as themes through the veneer of amoral fun, and by the end of the film, one has been presented with one of the most incisive and bleak portraits of Edwardian British society found on film.
10) The Last Emperor – One of the reasons I watch foreign films is to be transported. “There is no frigate like a book”, Emily Dickinson wrote, and I think “film” can be easily substituted as the last word in her famous line. In this film, Bernardo Bertolucci recreates the late Ching Dynasty, as its last emperor comes to power as a youth, and watches his empire crumble in the rising tensions of the 20th century. By turns a lavish period piece, a bleak concentration camp tale, and a portrait of a crumbling marriage, this film is nothing less than a story about the 20th century. What makes this film special is partly that Bertolucci is careful to be realistic about the period’s complexity: the young emperor longs to be modern in his dress and possessions, but resents the Chinese embracing of modern political ideas; though the communists run a brutal and deeply unjust concentration camp, one guard is kind and empathetic, even wise). For the three, colorful hours of this film, I no longer lived in California—I was an inhabitant of the Forbidden City, a freedom fighter, a tortured monarch, as in all great movies, a tourist of time and space.